When a Pee-Wee-Sized Idea Turns into a Bases-Clearing Home Run

It’s happened to me more times than I can remember.  An idea strikes, out of the blue, an inspiration from the creative ether, and I feel energized, inspired, eager to begin a new story.

boltfrombluebeginning

 

But then a funny thing happens.

I realize, sometimes after keying in the first few sentences, sometimes while thinking about the idea more fully, before having written a single word, that my construct, this gift from the muse, is in fact woefully underdeveloped.  Perhaps it represents a situation, a concept, a character’s epiphany, a new twist on an old theme–it is a good starting point for a story, but it is not, by itself and in itself, a story.  Not even close.  Once the white-hot glow of new creation cools to a steady simmer, once I step back and examine things with a cool and analytical eye, I realize I am nowhere close to beginning a story.  There is still much to flesh out.

simmering

 

This is precisely what happened with The Eye-Dancers.  One night, while still in high school, I had a vivid dream of a girl outside my bedroom window.  She was just a child, maybe seven years old, standing in the light of the street lamp, out in the middle of the road.  But she was no ordinary child–the light went right through her.  She was more ghost than girl, more apparition than flesh-and-blood human being.  She beckoned for me to come outside, and I remember, all these years later, how real it all seemed.  When I woke up moments later, the bedsheets were in a tangle at my feet, and my skin was wet with perspiration.  Immediately I jotted down the essentials of the dream, knowing, instinctively, that this was the germ of a story.  The girl from my dreams couldn’t be wasted, tossed into some discarded literary oblivion from which she might never be heard from again.  She needed to come alive, on the printed page, the centerpiece of a story I was sure I was meant to write.

ghostgirl

 

The thing is, it took twenty years for that story to materialize, two decades for the pieces to fit together into a coherent and structured whole.  Many times, I doubted if I would ever be able to work this “ghost girl” into a story, but finally, in a far-off and futuristic 21st century, Mitchell Brant and Joe Marma and Ryan Swinton and Marc Kuslanski emerged, one by one, against a backdrop of parallel worlds and nightmares come to life, and the “ghost girl” at last had a home.

nightmarescometolife

 

But that’s the way ideas often are.  Every now and then, when we’re lucky, they arrive fully evolved, fleshed out, ready to lead us where they will. Much more frequently, at least in my experience–they come in pieces, bit by bit, at their own pace, and in their own time.  They cannot be rushed, and they cannot be forced.

bitbybitcantberushedtortoise

 

They demand our patience.

*******************

Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was so small as a child that he didn’t manage to get onto his high school baseball team until his senior year, and even then it was for only six games.  Nicknamed “Pee Wee” as a boy because of his mastery of playing marbles, Reese weighed all of 120 pounds as a high school senior.  Few talent scouts indeed would have predicted a future in baseball for the diminutive infielder.

peeweemarbles

 

But Reese continued to play the game he loved, and when his amateur church league team played their championship game on the minor league Louisville Colonels field, personnel for the minor league club were impressed by what they saw.  Maybe the small kid with the slick glove and quick feet had a future in the game, after all.

peeweereese

 

Within two short years, Reese was playing shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the Major Leagues.  His big-league career got off to a rocky start, as he broke a bone in his heel during his rookie campaign of 1940, and then the following year, Reese led the Majors in errors.  But as time went on, it became clear that Pee Wee Reese was a keeper.  The Dodgers never traded him or released him; he would go on to play for the heroes of Flatbush for sixteen years.

ebbetsfieldflatbush

 

Never a great pure hitter, Reese still managed to get on base with regularity, drawing walks and using his savvy to set the table as the leadoff batter in the National League’s most feared lineup, featuring the power of Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, the skill of Junior Gilliam, and the all-around mastery of Jackie Robinson.  It was in regard to Robinson, in particular, where Reese made his most profound mark, helping his teammate along during Robinson’s trailblazing and tempestuous rookie year of 1947.  Reese, the team captain, played such a pivotal role that Robinson later wrote, “Pee Wee, whether you are willing to admit what your being a great guy meant (a great deal) to my career, I want you to know how much I feel it meant.  May I take this opportunity to say a great big thanks and I sincerely hope all things you want in life be yours.”

reeseandrobinson

 

Pee Wee Reese retired from baseball as a player in 1958, the year after the Dodgers moved to the West Coast.  (He lost three years of his career in the 1940s while serving in World War II.)  In 1984, deservedly, and long overdue, the Little Colonel, the captain of the Dodgers, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

reeseinthehall

 

******************

It’s easy to wish that all ideas, when they come, arrive fully formed and ready to go, complete with all major plot developments, character motivations, and even, perhaps, subthemes and story tangents.  And sometimes they do.  In particular, there have been times when an idea for a short story has hit me with such force, such actuality, I knew it was a winner, and all I had to do was sit down at my keyboard and let the tapestry of the idea unravel, word by word.  Ideas like this are the phenoms, the high school superstars who even the most nearsighted of scouts can discern have a bright and accomplished future.

superstarideasnearend

 

But you can’t count on them.  They are the Halley’s Comets of the literary world, only coming round once every blue moon, teasing us with a glimpse, a flourish, and then vanishing, like mist, once again into the farthest depths of the cosmos.

halleyscomet

 

No–most ideas take work, thought, honing, patience.  It’s often easy to become frustrated with such ideas, works-in-progress as they are.  But if we allow these soft-spoken and demure gems the time they need to grow and mature, we may just have a winner on our hands.

Sometimes, even a Pee Wee can make it all the way to the top.

greatsmokiesgemsendofpost

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Inner/Outer Writing Paradox (Or, From an Old Oak Desk in New England)

Where is your special place, the place where you block out the clutter and noise and distractions, and let your creative energy flow?

Mine is an old oak desk that my father used to use when he was a student in school, decades ago.  It’s solid, heavy, and not designed for the accoutrements of 21st-century digital technology.  But it’s my little oasis to think and dream and create.

oasis

 

My father actually passed the desk on to me while I was still living with my parents, a high school student with my eyes peeled toward the future, the promise of ten thousand tomorrows, of horizons to be explored and aspirations realized.  We are old friends, my desk and I.  The oak is scarred in spots, dented in others, victim to the long passage of time and the elements.  But the imperfections merely serve to make it more approachable, more real, more mine.

imperfections

 

I’ve spent countless hours sitting at the old desk, pecking away at my keyboard, working through stories and ideas and inspirations–some of which took shape and became full-bodied manuscripts and novels; others that died a quiet, gray death, falling into the oblivion of the unfinished and uncompleted.

tossedoutmanuscripts

 

Through it all, one thing has remained constant–the desk, my sturdy oak friend, has always offered solitude and seclusion–it’s just me, tucked away in my den.  There are times, at night, the drapes drawn, the house dark and still, as if surrounded by a giant, soundproof glove, when I feel like the only person, the only creature, on earth.

aloneatnight

 

Writing is a lonely task–sometimes, it seems, the loneliest of all, especially when the words won’t come, the characters won’t cooperate, the sentences and paragraphs refuse to flow into anything resembling a coherent whole.

writersblockcharacterswontcooperate

 

And yet, and yet . . .

There is a paradox at work here.  From the solitude, a reaching out; from the stillness, a sharing of words and thoughts and ideas–sending them out, perhaps with confidence, perhaps with trepidation, to be read and contemplated and critiqued by others.  What was originally crafted in the quiet of a bedroom, the seclusion of a Thoreau-like woodland getaway, is now dispersed, as if by magic, away from the confines and isolation of self and out toward the vastness of an ocean of readers.

writersgetawayinwoods

 

And yet still, there is a paradox within the paradox. I, like many writers, am a lifelong introvert.  I recharge my batteries when I’m alone, lost in thought and wonder.  I suppose I’ve become a bit more skilled at social gatherings through the years (though perhaps my friends may disagree!), but mingling among partygoers or making small talk in a group setting has never, and will never, come naturally to me.  Much like Mitchell Brant or Marc Kuslanski, I tend to feel awkward and clumsy in such situations.  When I observe my extrovert friends or family members, the effortless way they break into, or begin, conversations, I cannot help but admire them for their skills and panache.  They make something I struggle with look easy.

partysocial

 

But the funny thing is–the majority of them would likely never dare to share the intense, personal accounts we writers do on a regular basis–often, to people we don’t even know.  A paradox, indeed, that an introverted writer feels the desire, the longing, the need, to become naked and vulnerable, sharing his feelings, fears, dreams, memories, foibles, passions, ideas, loves with anyone who chooses to read them.

passionsanddreams

 

It’s as if the solitary act of writing needs to shed its literary cocoon and fly out the window, looking for places to land.  There is value, of course, even in writing just for yourself.  Diaries and journals through the ages lend proof to this truth.  But within every writer’s heart, isn’t there a calling, as if a voice were whispering, to share the depth and breadth of her essence?  The ideas, expressed as words on a page, are disconnected from the whole, separate from the world, so long as they reside only in our computer hard drive or in a dusty corner of our dresser drawer.

writingflyingoutwindow

 

And the world, as it were, may contain only a handful of readers–perhaps family members and a few close friends–or it may include everyone, the reach as limitless as our imaginations.  The power of the Internet certainly offers such reach.  We write a blog post in New England, or Berlin, or San Francisco, or Prague, and we, through the simplest of clicks, instantly share it across the globe.  And we, more than likely, wish for our words to be read, and, hopefully, appreciated and digested and thought about, by as many people as possible.

earth

 

Perhaps writers, then, are, in actuality, closet extroverts?  Or, maybe more accurately, writers are people, and feel the same longing all people share–to be recognized, to be understood, to be heard.  We just go about it in our own way.

We try, “in utter loneliness,” as John Steinbeck once said, to “explain the inexplicable.”

steinbeck

 

So the next time you tuck yourself away in your room or your office or your secluded writer’s cabin in the wild, and you feel a pang of guilt that you’re not spending that time with your family or your friends (a feeling I’ve certainly experienced on numerous occasions), perhaps you can offer them (and yourself) a reminder.

cabininwoodsend

 

Tell them that you have something inside of you, insisting, unceasing, that must come out, something so personal, so inherently you, that no one else on earth can produce it.  And that it’s a wistful thing, ungraspable, really, like a phantom flower that materializes out of thin air, but when reached for, vanishes like mist.  All we can do, while sequestered in our little writing corner, the door shut, the phone off, is try to capture that feeling, that idea, that insistence within us and express it to the best of our abilities.

writersroom

 

And then, when we step back out into the light of day, share it with the world.

sunrisesharingveryend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Writing What You Know (Or, Reading in Front of the Sixth-Graders)

“I think you’re ready, Michael,” she said.  “You’re reading very well, and I want the big kids to hear it.”

On the one hand, I was thrilled.  Of all the students in the class, I was the one Mrs. Northrup had chosen for the honor.  But on the other hand, I was scared silly.  I was six years old that fall, a first-grader who may have been reading well but who was also the shyest student in the class.  Looking back, I am sure Mrs. Northrup realized this, and she had decided the task assigned would do me good.

shy

 

Of course, being six, I didn’t share her professional and experienced perspective.  She’d been a teacher for decades.  I just knew that standing up in front of a classroom full of older kids and reading aloud to them seemed about as beneficial for my development as walking straight into the heart of an active volcano.

volcano

 

“Don’t worry,” she assured me.  “You’ll do just fine.”

When the time came, book in hand, I trudged through the old hallways of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, up the flight of stairs to the floor where the “big kids” had their classes, and, moving slower and slower with every step, arrived outside the assigned door.  I wished Mrs. Northrup had accompanied me.  She could have introduced me to the class, or done or said something to make it easier.  But she had sent me up by myself.

I considered turning around and leaving, but realized Mrs. Northrup would get word of such a tactic before day’s end.  No.  I was stuck.

I knocked on the half-opened door, my heart beating faster, faster.  There were sixth-graders in there!  They seemed light-years ahead of me, and more intimidating than a pride of lions.  The teacher–whose name I have long since forgotten–smiled at me and motioned for me to come in.

lions

 

“You must be Michael,” she said. “Mrs. Northrup told me to expect you, and I was just telling the class that one of the top first-grade students would be coming up to read.”  Great, I thought.  More pressure.  “Come along in!” she beamed.

I stood in place a moment longer, my mind still clinging, stubbornly, to potential escape routes.  But when the teacher motioned for me to come in again, her smile widening, I did the only thing I could think of.

I turned my back to the class, took a deep breath, and sidled through the door.  I heard someone in the class chuckle, but I didn’t turn around, wouldn’t turn around.  In front of me, the blackboard still contained the teacher’s notes, in crisp, perfect chalk-script, from whatever lesson the class had been learning earlier that day.

blackboard

 

No one said a word.  I looked at nothing but the chalkboard–I didn’t dare glance back at the class, nor did I look at the teacher.  I had a job to do, a task to complete, and I didn’t want to be in any way distracted.

I opened the book to the assigned spot, and began to read.  The passage ran one entire page.  I wasn’t sure the class could hear me with my back turned to them, but I didn’t stress over it.  I just told myself to read the next line, the next sentence, the next paragraph, get through it, and then exit the room.

openbookreading

 

As soon as I read the last word, I began to side-walk toward the door.  I moved as quickly as I could, and I didn’t turn around and walk face-forward again until I was in the hallway, heading toward the stairs, which would take me away from the sixth-graders and their classrooms and their lessons.

hallway

 

Not once, during the entire experience, did I turn to face the class.

*********************

It’s something every writer has heard, often drilled into them with the force and repetition of an iron-clad commandment:  “Write what you know.”

writewhatyouknow

 

We hear this so many times, in so many different places, and from so many reputable sources, it seems nearly impossible to argue.  After all, who can argue against the truth?  Besides, the advice seems to hold a lot of weight.  When we write about experiences, situations, jobs, relationships we have experienced, don’t our words contain more validity?  Don’t they resonate more, sing louder and more confidently?

Yes.

And no.

Let’s take a step back.  What, exactly, does “write what you know” refer to?  Is it to be taken rigidly, literally, basically saying that if I have never been fired from a job, to use a simple for-instance, that I cannot then write about a character in a story who is fired from their job?

fired

 

Or is it more broad?  Maybe, though I haven’t ever been fired, I still can imagine what such an experience might feel like.  Perhaps I have been dropped from a sports team, turned down at an interview, caught doing something wrong at home that resulted in less-than-ideal consequences.  The feelings I may have experienced during those situations may not be identical, one-for-one matches to getting fired, but do they really need to be?

Or take my first-grade experience related above.  It’s a silly old story on the surface. (And that evening, after getting word of what happened, Mrs. Northrup called my mother on the phone to tell her all about it.  They both had a good laugh over it, and eventually I did, too.)  But the experience also contains a lot of very real, raw emotions:  the fear of public speaking; feeling awkward and shy; the fear of performing badly under pressure; the possibility of being laughed at, ridiculed, or rejected; the burden of carrying the expectations of my teacher to represent her class well; the isolating journey up to an unknown, Brobdingnagian portion of the school, inhabited by “big kids”; and so on.

brobdignagian

 

In other words, it is rich with emotional experience, feelings, internal memories that can be “borrowed,” so to speak, when writing about situations that, at first glance, seem radically different and unrelated, but, in actuality, when you probe deeper and drill down to the feeling level, are really quite similar.  After all, what do we remember from our experiences, the good ones as well as the bad ones?  The circumstances, obviously, but even more so, the feelings, the emotions, the pain or joy, the sadness or elation that resulted.

Writing what you know can be interpreted as only writing about things that are a one-for-one match with your own personal experience.  That is a valid interpretation.  But I would argue it is an unnecessarily constricting one.  A fiction writer uses his or her imagination to create worlds, events, characters that, hopefully, allow readers to enter into the story, become engaged in far-off places, other time periods, or even just the next town over.  If we as authors are reluctant to write things beyond the purview of our own literal experience, then we probably should not write fiction at all.  With such strict parameters in place, creating a straitjacket on our literary endeavors, speculative fiction would never exist.  There could be no time machines or werewolves, vampires or interdimensional voids that carry four seventh-graders to a faraway and alien world.  There could be no Yellow Brick Roads or dreams and powers that lift us high up, “over the rainbow.”  There could be no Morlocks or Superman or preternatural do-overs in Frank Capra Christmas classics.

itsawonderfullife

 

Anytime I feel disqualified from writing a certain scene or character because I “haven’t ever done that before” or “been there before,” I just take a moment and think back to that scared, shy, and overwhelmed first-grader.  If I just close my eyes and listen, really listen, I discover he has so much to share.

writelikeend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Exploring Different Points of View (Or, Riding Along with an April Witch)

When I was growing up, in the now-vintage years of the 1980s, I used to like to pretend.  I pretended I was an explorer, navigating the river basins and leafy pathways of tropical rain forests.  I pretended I was an astronaut, drifting through the black depths of space, my rocket ship on auto-cruise as I sat back, sipped hot chocolate from a Styrofoam cup, and read back issues of The Fantastic Four (remember, I was ten years old when I was visualizing all this!)  I pretended I was surveying the uncharted regions of the ocean floor in a deep-sea submarine, discovering new species of aquatic flora and fauna.

ff74

 

But most of all, I play-acted.  I would invent games, scenarios, sporting events where players–actual and imaginary–squared off in a battle for the ages.  Sometimes I’d be by myself in the basement or backyard, offering a complete play-by-play of the action.  I’d “play” nine innings of baseball, running through the lineups, making managerial decisions and switching pitchers when the situation dictated, impersonating every batter on both teams.  Sometimes I’d recruit my friends–the same ones who served as the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers–and together we’d shoot baskets or throw around the football, each of us in our world of make-believe and magic.

magic

 

As I grew older, went to high school and then college, little changed in this regard.  I’d still pretend as often as I could.  I would tell people that I never grew bored.  How could I when I was always a mere thought away from a home run in Yankee Stadium or a forehand winner up the line at Wimbledon, or a lively give-and-take in an embassy in Paris or Tokyo or Prague?  Sure, much of the time, my focus was on the here and now–homework, family matters, friends, career paths.  But when I had a moment, when I could break away from the grind, those were the times I let my mind roam and wander where it willed . . .

pathswanderingwherewill

 

*****************

In a short story from 1952 titled “The April Witch,” Ray Bradbury writes about a seventeen-year-old girl named Cecy who possesses the extraordinary ability of entering into other beings and experiencing the world through their eyes, their senses.

aprilwitch

 

The opening paragraph of “The April Witch” makes this crystal clear:

“Into the air, over the valleys, under the stars, above a river, a pond, a road, flew Cecy.  Invisible as new spring winds, fresh as the breath of clover rising from twilight fields, she flew.  She soared in doves as soft as white ermine, stopped in trees and lived in blossoms, showering away in petals when the breeze blew.  She perched in a lime-green frog, cool as mint by a shining pool.  She trotted in a brambly dog and barked to hear echoes from the sides of distant barns.  She lived in new April grasses, in sweet clear liquids rising from the musky earth.”

greenfrog

 

But more than anything, Cecy wants to experience love, feel love, something her parents have warned her about.  “Remember,” they say.  “You’re remarkable.  Our whole family is odd and remarkable.  We can’t mix or marry with ordinary folk.  We’d lose our magical powers if we did.”

losemagicpowers

 

So, unable to pursue a real relationship in her own form, Cecy inhabits the person of a young woman named Ann Leary, who she then coaxes, through her supernatural abilities, to attend a dance.  In this way, vicariously, Cecy experiences her first kiss, her first date, her first, soft taste of romance.

***************

Cecy’s story hits home for me on a number of levels.  First, of course, she is able to do, quite literally, what I could only pretend to do as a boy growing up with an overactive imagination.  In her case, she wouldn’t need to wonder what it would be like to serve an ace at Wimbledon.  She could inhabit the body of the player who produces the shot, feeling it for herself.  My initial reaction to this might be envy–what a gift that would be.  If we possessed such a power, we could experience anything we wanted, any notion that took root, any desire that compelled us to dream and imagine and aspire to something that, otherwise, would be perpetually and irrevocably out of reach.

couldhavedreamandimagineanything

 

But then I consider it again.

We do have such an ability.  We can experience whatever we want.  We can drive a race car at 200 miles per hour.  We can climb Everest.  We can journey through the eyes of a mysterious “ghost girl” and come out on the other side, in a parallel universe.

everest

eyedancers

 

We can dance across the canvas of the sky, using the stars themselves as our springboards.

stars

 

Anytime we write a story, anytime we read a story, we are seeing the world through the eyes of someone else, living as vicariously through them as Cecy herself does as she enters the bodies of frogs and crickets, flower blossoms, or young women out for a night on the town.  The possibilities are endless, limited only by the scope of our imagination and the roads we choose either to walk along or bypass.

flowerblossoms

 

With The Eye-Dancers, for example, I was able to inhabit the consciousness, the points of view, of four distinct and different characters.  In short stories I have written, I’ve seen the world through the eyes of a small-town shop owner dealing with a declining profit margin and an odd customer who won’t leave him alone; a man haunted by a recurring dream of falling to his death from a high-rise; a clown in a traveling circus who discovers something horrific in one of the towns his troupe stops in; a husband coming to terms with the accident that has crippled his wife; a thirteen-year-old experiencing the moment when he knows, unequivocally, that he is no longer a child; a patron at a Chinese restaurant who reads a haunting, ominous message in his fortune cookie and then must struggle to overcome a long-held fear.

fortunecookie

 

Sometimes, as a writer of stories, as a creator of characters, I feel like a patient with multiple personality disorder engaged in a form of therapy, as effective as it is magical.  It’s no different, really, from my flights of fancy in years gone by–it is no more, and no less, than the written manifestation of them.

We all write, read, watch, partake.  We all dream, imagine, and long for something better, something more.  We are all, each in our own way, riding high, aloft on the currents of the wind alongside Ray Bradbury’s April Witch.

ridingthewind

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

When in Doubt, Go with Sweetness

Ideas can strike writers at any time, and often without warning.  They can frustrate and baffle, but they can also give us wings as we soar aloft, above mountain peaks and green, lush uplands where our imaginations roam unhindered.  In short, ideas can be magic.

uplands

 

But what if, after the initial euphoria has worn off and you step back to examine your idea with the cold, hard light of objectivity, you realize that it’s not a perfect fit for a particular market; it doesn’t neatly fall into a trendy category; it doesn’t reflect what’s on the bestseller lists or the prime display shelves at the local bookstore.

bestsellerlist

 

Even so, you can’t deny that you feel genuinely excited about the idea, the scope, the characters you can create that will populate the pages.  You feel a connection to the project.  It’s a story you feel meant to write, and you know, you are sure, that once you begin, it will be a genuine labor of love.

laboroflove

 

But who will read it if it’s not in vogue, if it represents an outlier, a literary orphan as it were, searching vainly for a hot genre or category or concept to which it can attach itself?

Do you rework the idea, a few tweaks here, several major plot shifts there, perhaps a new character or two, to give it the best chance to sell?  Or do you leave it as is, determined to write your story as authentically as possible?

whattodowriting

 

Friends and fellow writers, agents and editors may offer advice, hoping to clarify the problem.  But you discover that the more advice you receive, the cloudier the issue becomes.

What to do?

**************

The 1985 Chicago Bears are one of the most iconic teams in NFL history.  The Bears that year compiled a 15-1 regular-season record and demolished the New York Giants and (then) Los Angeles Rams in the NFC playoffs, winning the two games by a combined score of 45-0.  Then in Super Bowl XX, the Bears crushed the New England Patriots, 46-10.  Many people consider the ’85 Bears to be the best single-season team of all time.

85bears

 

The heart and soul of the team, unquestionably, was Walter Payton.  Payton had been a star running back for the Bears since his rookie year of 1975.  For years, while the team around him struggled, Payton set records and reached milestones.  Nicknamed “Sweetness” for his ability to elude defenders with ease, Payton was universally respected league-wide.  As the 1985 season unfolded, analysts, players, and fans were in agreement–finally, after all his years in the league toiling for an also-ran, it was nice to see Payton play on a gifted team overall and have the chance to win a championship.

walterpayton

 

No one admired Payton more than his coach, Mike Ditka, himself a former player for the Bears.  Ditka was not shy in proclaiming Walter Payton the greatest football player he had ever been associated with.  And so, with the Bears running away with Super Bowl XX, the stage seemed set for Payton to cap off his illustrious career–not simply with a Super Bowl win but with the honor of scoring a touchdown in the game.

superbowlxx

 

It would not be easy.  The one thing the Patriots did well in the contest was contain Payton.  They keyed on him relentlessly, and he had no room to run.  Even so, late in the third quarter, with the Bears already winning 37-3, they found themselves at the New England 1-yard line.  Here it was.  Simply hand the ball off to “Sweetness,” and let him score, a fitting reward for one who had done so much for so long for the Bears and the city of Chicago.

paytonchicago

 

Instead, Coach Mike Ditka chose to give the ball to a pop-culture sensation named William “The Refrigerator” Perry, a 308-pound defensive lineman (in an era when 300-pound linemen were rare) who occasionally doubled as a running back when the team got close to the end zone.  Perry was a decent player, but far from a superstar.  What’s more, he was only a rookie.  He had not played for the team through the lean years of the 1970s and early 1980s as Walter Payton had.  He was a solid contributor, it was true, but more than anything, he was trending, the flavor of the moment, one of the top personalities of 1985.  It can be argued, especially when it came to Perry’s scoring touchdowns, that he was a fad, a 300-pound flash-in-the-pan, a one-hit wonder.

williamperry

 

But it was William Perry who scored that Super Bowl touchdown.  Walter Payton never did reach the end zone that day.

perrysuperbowltd

 

Mike Ditka was not the kind of coach who second-guessed himself.  Confident, brash, self-assured, he made his calls and stood by them.  But this was one decision that would haunt him.

Much later, years after the Bears’ emphatic Super Bowl victory, and more than a decade removed from Payton’s death to a rare liver disorder, Ditka, now retired from coaching, admitted in an interview that giving the ball to the Refrigerator, instead of allowing Payton–the team mainstay, its leader who had missed only one game in his entire NFL career–the chance to score in the biggest game of his life was the one lingering regret from his coaching career.

ditka

 

Looking at the expression on the old coach’s face, you could see how much he wished he could go back in time and reconsider his decision.

He should have given the ball to “Sweetness.”

*************

When the idea for The Eye-Dancers came to me, I knew almost immediately that the four main characters, all boys, would be based on some of the friends I knew while growing up.  I further knew that they would be twelve years old over the course of the novel.  Since publishing the book, there have been some who have criticized this decision.  I should have made one of the main characters a girl, they argued, or made the characters a little older, or both.  And from a purely marketing standpoint, they may be right.

eyedancers

 

The thing is, I believe that writing is an act of love.  It is a way–perhaps the best way–for us to share what’s important to us with the world.  It is our chance to tell stories uniquely our own, to infuse them with our experiences, points of view, joys, fears, opinions, and quirks.

I suppose a writer can indeed reshape an original, inspired idea, twisting it, contorting it, redefining it to fit in.  If vampire fiction is hot, then turn the main character into a vampire, even if, in the original conception, he was just a boy, as mortal as any of us.  If dystopian settings are in fashion, then maybe the writer can alter the time and place of the idea and write a tale set against the backdrop of a dark and repressive future age.  Or, if little green aliens with big black eyes are all the rage . . .

greenaliens

 

And by all means, if an idea originally strikes in a form such as this, if it occurs organically on its own, then there indeed is another story to tell about vampires or dytopian societies or little green aliens.

But if the idea that hits, suddenly, jarring you to the core with its power, lighting a creative fuse that can only be unleashed through the words pouring out onto the page . . . if that idea does not contain anything that’s trending . . .

Don’t worry about.  Write it the way it is–the way it’s meant to be.  Who knows?  You may unleash a new trend.

There will always be another “Refrigerator.”

But there is only one “Sweetness.”

writeyourownstory

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

An Escape . . . and a Confrontation

It’s unavoidable, really, and it’s a question that needs to be asked of anyone who spends a good deal of his or her time creating stories out of the ether, as it were, searching for ideas that resonate and entertain, ideas that will take readers by the hand and lead them to high, rocky promontories overlooking new and exotic lands.

promontory

 

What is storytelling?  What does it represent?  Why do we write?  Is creative storytelling, particularly speculative fiction, nothing more than an escape, an imaginative flight of fancy that takes writers and readers far away from the world they inhabit?

flightoffancy

 

On one level, perhaps.  After all, what author can deny the heady thrill of the first-draft rush, when words spill out like lava, flowing, steaming, too hot to touch?  Or the excitement of vicariously living through characters that seem so real, so vivid, we talk to them out loud as we wash the dishes or drive along a lonely stretch of country road on a blue-skied day, the windows rolled down?  Or the fascination of building a world, of crafting, brick by literary brick, the cities, towns, inhabitants, monsters, laws, and social customs of places thousands of light-years, or millennia, from our own earth? And what reader, what lover of the imaginative places, asking the questions of “What if?” and “Why not?” can deny the enjoyment of devouring words on the page (or the e-reader screen, as the case may be!), getting lost in the story, being swept away by the scope and wonder of the events?

getlostinstory

 

An escape?  A journey to a distant land, far beyond the sight line of our everyday existence?  Indeed.  Storytelling is that.

But it’s other things, too.

****************

When I was a boy, I used to love to explore the pond that lay, like a magnet attracting my attention, several hundred yards behind the high school where my older brothers and sister attended, and where I myself would one day attend.   And on a pleasant, sunny, warm early October afternoon when I was seven years old, I asked my friend Matt to come along and see if we could find any toads or carp or perhaps, if we were really lucky, some salamanders frolicking in the shallows.

salamander

 

It was a Saturday, and my brother, who played fullback for the varsity football team, was out on the field, leading his team to victory.  But I didn’t care about any of that.  The sun was shining.  I was bored.  I wanted to do something.  So I asked my parents if Matt and I could head over to the pond.  “Sure,” they said.  “But be careful.  And don’t be long.”  I assured them we wouldn’t be.  After all, what could go wrong?  The pond wasn’t far away, and it wasn’t like we planned to swim in it.  We’d just stroll along the dirt path that wound its way behind the pond and around to the other side.

pond

 

I was so familiar with the path, having explored it dozens of times before with my father, I could have navigated it blindfolded.  Matt and I walked slowly, looking this way and that, not wanting to miss anything good.  Lily pads formed green oases in the water and cattails grew luxuriously by the pond’s edge, as the dirt path circled back, behind the pond, shrouded by poplars and maples, the leaves just beginning to turn gold and crimson and burnt orange, readying themselves for the autumn color show to come.  The hum of insects filled the air, and we spied a dragonfly zigzagging its way inches above the surface of the pond.

dragonfly

 

Back here, behind the pond, there was a chain-link fence to our right.  Beyond it lay the backyards of neighborhood homes, incongruous against the wild growth that flanked the path.  Normally I paid no notice to the homes.  They were a distraction, a sign of civilization I didn’t want to acknowledge.  I preferred to believe I was exploring uncharted territory in the rain forests or jungles, cutting through thick undergrowth, on the lookout for exotic new species of flora or fauna.  The neighborhood homes had no place in these imaginary expeditions of mine.

jungles

 

But on that day, that brilliant early October day of my childhood, there was no way to ignore them.

“Hey, kids,” a voice suddenly rang out.  Matt and I turned around.  On the other side of the fence, his long brown hair stringy, unwashed, a smiling teenager stood.  “What’cha doin’?”

chainlinkfence

 

It was hard to focus on his words.  My attention was locked on the shotgun he held, cradling it with both hands.  I looked at Matt.  His eyes were wide, glued to the gun.

“So here’s the deal,” the teenager said.  For all I knew, he was a student at the high school, maybe someone my brother knew.  Maybe he shared homeroom or study hall or trigonometry with him.  Maybe they talked, hung out in the halls.

None of that mattered now.  All that mattered were the words he said next:  “I’m gonna count to seven.  Not ten or fifteen or twenty.  Seven.”  He raised the shotgun, ever so slightly.  “And when I get to seven, you two better be gone.  ‘Cause if you’re not, I’m gonna blow your heads off.”  He smiled, pointed an index finger at us, and pretend-shot us with it.  “Got it?”

For a moment, I just stood there, unreality washing over me like a poisonous waterfall.  How could this be happening?

isonwaterfall

 

“One,” the teenager with the stringy hair said, and Matt took off, not waiting for him to count to two, running down the path, in the direction of the football field, which was hidden from view behind the leaves and tangles of plants and trees.  I still stood there, stunned.  I looked at the gun, aimed now, right at my head.  Peering through the opening, into the barrel of the shotgun, all I could see was black.

shotgunbarrel

 

“Two,” he said.  That did it.  I turned around and ran; I ran so fast I was sure I’d trip and fall.  I caught up to Matt, and we ran together, all the way back to the bleachers, where my parents sat and clapped, and where things seemed normal again.

bleachers

 

I never told them, or anyone, about that day.  It was something better left forgotten.

****************

But we never really forget, do we?  Not really.

Near the end of The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski are held at gunpoint.  Mitchell, at one juncture, looks at the barrel of the shotgun, its “black, empty mouth” pointed directly at his head.  And yes, as I wrote that scene, I felt myself pulled back, back, to the path behind the pond, to the day when I looked into the “black, empty mouth” of the gun myself.

But that’s the way storytelling is, I think–a blend of the imaginative and the real, the fantastic and the actual.  Bits and pieces of our lives scatter through the pages of our fiction like literary calling cards, giving voice to memories and dreams and fears and hopes that, though they may occasionally flicker, never die.

flickeringflames

 

“Fantasy’s hardly an escape from reality,” author Lloyd Alexander once said.  “It’s a way of understanding it.”

As we weave the stories, even the ones from beyond the stars, in galaxies and worlds on the other side of the void, so far away we can scarcely even imagine the distance; as we get lost in the adventure and mystery and journey of the story, we can never really escape.

andromedagalaxy

 

Because as we write, and as we read, we must, inevitably, come face-to-face with the reflection in our own personal mirror.

mirrorimage

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

To Entertain or to Illuminate, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

On September 22, 1959, on the eve of the premiere of the new television series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace.  Serling, by that time already considered one of television’s brightest writing stars, had amassed a formidable resume.  He was known throughout the industry as television’s “angry young man” due to his ardent and very vocal criticism of the censorship so rampant in the medium at that time.

serling2

 

Determined to produce gritty, realistic scripts that dealt with injustice, inequality, and greed, Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90, and other venues that featured live TV dramas of the day.  His breakthrough script, “Patterns,” which aired in February 1955, launched him into orbit, and by the time of the Wallace interview, Serling, already a winner of three Emmy awards, was an established industry heavyweight.

patterns

 

At the start of the interview, Wallace credits Serling as the accomplished writer he is; he discusses Serling’s rise within the industry, and his ongoing battles against sponsor-mandated censorship.  About midway through the conversation, the discussion takes a turn . . .

wallaceinterview

 

“You’ve got a new series coming up called The Twilight Zone,” Wallace says, and simply from his tone of voice, his delivery, one can sense Wallace’s disappointment.  After all, in the interview, Serling himself admits to be being “tired,” and that he doesn’t “want to fight anymore”–with corporate sponsors and their dictates on what can and cannot be included in his scripts.  The Twilight Zone, a short, half-hour sci-fi and fantasy excursion, was deemed by many, Wallace among them, as a sellout on the part of one of TV’s most serious and hard-hitting writers.

Wallace suggests the episodes will be “potboilers,” which Serling rejects, stating that he believes the shows will be “high-quality . . . extremely polished films.”

eyeofthebeholder

 

Undeterred, Wallace then says, “For the time being and for the foreseeable future [since Serling would be so focused on The Twilight Zone going forward], you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

Even here, Wallace is not finished. He quotes TV producer Herbert Brodkin as saying, “Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both.”

herbertbrodkin

 

To which Serling replies, “I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic.  You cannot be commercial and quality.  You cannot be commercial concurrent with having a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve.  And this I have to reject. . . . I don’t think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it’s something raunchy to be ashamed of. . . . I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can’t have public acceptance and still be artistic.  And, as I said, I have to reject that.”

serlingwallce1

 

***************

When I was an English major in college, there was a fellow student, named John, who shared several classes with me.  I’ve blogged about John before.  In addition to wanting to create something new, uniquely his own, John also wanted to create something artistic, arcane, even inaccessible.

“If just anyone can understand it,” he said once, “then I’ve failed.  I’m not writing for the layperson.  I’m writing for the select few.  If John Q. Public ‘gets’ my story, then what’s the point?  Anyone can write a story like that!”

hardtounderstand

 

I understood his sentiment–up to a point.  All writers, all artists want to say something, to have one of their stories or songs or paintings or performances move an audience to tears, open eyes, create dialogue, and promote new viewpoints.  We all want our work to matter.

artistic

 

But I strongly disagreed with his assertion that a work is somehow elevated if it’s nearly incomprehensible; that a story can only have merit if it needs a literature professor to explain its themes, ideas, and structure to a room full of confused and bored students.

Sure, I want my stories to make people to stop, think, perhaps question things they hadn’t even considered before, or, if they had, maybe the story enables them to see something familiar through a different lens, changing their perspective, granting them a peek on the other side of the mountain, as it were.  But to accomplish that, I don’t believe I, or any other writer, needs to create a piece that requires a literary road map through which to navigate.

literaryroadmap

 

Certainly it is my hope that The Eye-Dancers will prompt readers to step back and think about the very nature of what we term “reality”; to consider the mysterious, even seemingly otherworldly psychic connection two strangers can share; and to wonder at the possibility that we, each of us, are just one piece of an infinite puzzle that includes countless variants of ourselves scattered throughout worlds that parallel our own like invisible, silent shadows.

parallelworlds

 

But more than this, it is my hope that readers will relate to the characters, cheer them on, root for them, get swept up in the flow and momentum of the story, and have fun as they read.

When I explained this to John, when I told him I wanted a wide swath of people to enjoy my stories, not just a select few, he simply shook his head and gave me a look that I could only interpret as pure pity.

************

The Twilight Zone remained on the air for five unforgettable seasons; and those “potboiler” episodes, those flights of fancy that delved into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, those “commercial” attempts at expression have endured and prospered.  It can be argued, indeed, that The Twilight Zone is more appreciated, more loved, more respected now, on the precipice of 2015, than it was when it actually ran.

Serling himself expressed a possible reason for the show’s ongoing popularity.  “On The Twilight Zone,” he once said, “I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”  He was able, in other words, to utilize imaginative storytelling, plots that took viewers by the hand and led them to strange, often frightening new worlds, to comment on and critique the social ills, prejudices, and personal crises occurring in our own, very real lives.

themasks

 

The Twilight Zone accomplished Serling’s vision and proved beyond a doubt that a story, a novel, a piece of art, does not need to choose between entertaining and illuminating its audience.

The great pieces, the truly memorable works that hold up through the dust and years and passing of decades and centuries are the ones that accomplish both.

doingboth

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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